Saturday, November 27, 2010

Breakfast of Champs

Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. I nearly always associate dinners with family affairs or dates and I've known some pretty painful ones. While I do love dinners with the kids, all kinds of drama tend to happen at that time. I mean check out all the soap operas. Wine tossing seems to occur in fancy dinners in all the telenovelas at least once in the entire storyline and twice if its a movie with Sharon Cuneta in it.

But breakfast, if one wakes up early enough, is the best time. Even if you eat with the kids they are too sleepy to snap at each other or pull any tricks, or they're rushing off to school or some other function thats a matter of life or death. They can't get picky.

Still, I like to have trimmings for breakfast and I thrive on traditional fare. So when one speaks of a Filipino breakfast, it usually begins with chocolate. Yeah, I love my country. There are all sorts of cultural reasons for indulging in everyday pleasures. Anyway, chocolate, either the drinkable kind made with tablea or that all time favorite, champorado. Strangely enough, in Mexico, champurrado is the traditional hot chocolate.

When speaking of hot chocolate, however, we say tsokolate e or tsokolate ah recalling Padre Salvi's code in the Noli Me Tangere where the tsokolate ah (meaning "aguada) is the watered down version given to the non-influential parishioners. The rich kind however can be further enriched either by adding a thickening agent in the form of finely ground peanuts or by simply adding more chocolate.

Tablea is made from roasted and ground cacao nuts. The province best known for it is Batangas and the variety that comes from Taal seems to me to be perfectly roasted. However, for really exquisitely formulated   tablea, I have found one of the best in the most unlikely place -- Miag-ao, Iloilo. Trust the Ilonggos with their impressive culinary culture to come up with their version of this Tagalog specialty.

But champorado appears to be primarily a Tagalog treat. Though instant versions are now available, the best kind is always the one where you can control exactly how thick and how chocolately you want the result to be. Made with sticky rice, cooked gently with constant stirring, ground tablea and sugar is added in increments until the entire mixture is thick. Sugar and milk are best added at the table for individual tastes and also to prevent the watering down of the champorado as well as to allow it to keep longer. I have heard of some of the older folk adding thick coconut cream to their mix, instead of milk. Others use the richer and creamier carabao milk.

It is usually served with tuyo or any other form of salted fish.

Kain tayo?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Snack ideas

I'm sort of fascinated at the idea of working overtime. I mean, I do it a lot, but since the office doesn't have a snack machine (I must have a talk with my partners about that), staying in the office for mealtimes such as dinner and late night snacks becomes sort a dilemma.

I have noticed that most clustered office areas are surrounded by malls and restaurants making food runs an integral part of office procedure. Twenty four hour convenience stores also make for great pit stops for emergency rations.

So of course, not all these places are created equal. Some taste better than most others, and there are the ones that put in the extra effort, either through service, better food, excellent interiors, eye-catching presentation -- even in some turo-turos. Since my law partner is such a gourmand for Pinoy dishes, we would be doing the office-going public a service if we go through these places. :)

So, starting next week, aside from the usual recipes, we will be doing the rounds of commentable fast foods, restos and turo-turo places.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Election Mess

By mess, I am not referring to the trash in the streets as a result of this strictly Third World election style, although that would constitute one whole blog, I am referring to mess in the military sense.

Wikipedia (ok, so its not the worlds best source, but its pretty interesting to read) says:
"A mess (also called a messdeck aboard ships) is the place where military personnel socialise, eat, and (in some cases) live. In some societies this military usage has extended to other disciplined services eateries such as civilian fire fighting and police forces. The root of "mess" is the Old French "mes," portion of food, drawn from the Latin verb "mittere," meaning "to send" or "to put," the original sense being "a course of a meal put on the table." This sense of "mess," which appeared in English in the 13th century, was often used for cooked or liquid dishes in particular, as in the "mess of pottage" (porridge or soup) for which Esau in Genesis traded his birthright. By the 15th century, a group of people who ate together was also known as a "mess", and it is this sense that persists in the "mess halls" of the modern military."

I refer to the military sense, because aside from all the battle allusions spouted by our dear candidates, the first thing one learns as a candidate is that your campaign team runs on its stomach and feeding your volunteers is a paramount consideration. Thus, campaign headquarters are or ought to be equipped with kitchens for the daily feeding of volunteers who will be at your HQ in increasing increments of time until E-Day,  er election day, that is.

In the alternative, other candidates contract out the feeding of their volunteers to outside kitchens. thus, we saw that McDonald's began promoting their big orders specials, just for election year.

The care and feeding of constituents is also the reason why the houses of old-time politicos especially in the provinces had the long tables and immense kitchens that were called to duty at all hours.

When the Spaniards began colonization, the Philippines was a society that relied on a mix of blood succession and merit. There was social mobility and general equality between genders. In the course of organizing, the colonizers assigned the cabezas based on existing leadership. So the ruling rajahs also became the political heads under the new foreign rule.

However, prior to Spanish rule, local leaders were expected not only to lead their nations, they were also expected to provide for them. This is because many of the nations or communities were family or clan based groups and were lead by a father or mother figure. Somehow, the idea of providing for their constituents carried over to the next form of government under the colonizers.

While we may have transitioned into a democracy, our people still expect politicians to provide for them, the way a father or clan leader would provide for his family. This kind of thinking is often disastrous when taken literally, so you have political leaders raiding public coffers to provide their constituents with free burial, baptism sponsorships, medicines, food, etc.

Many of the local politicians in the 17th and in the early part of the 19th century had houses that provided for constant feeding. Huge vats and ladles still seen in antique stores were used to make lugaw (a cheap form of rice porrige). Long solid narra tables was where most meetings would take place. Kitchens would have extensions for wood burning brick stoves and ovens that could handle large amounts of food at any given time.

Now that the election results are nearly all in, we can soon see which politicians did not fail the expectations to feed their volunteers. This is usually an accurate assesment of a winner.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Mother's Day Pancakes

Everyone, it seems in on a health kick. This makes me wonder why it is I still keep baking these sugar rich food, but I'll stop the day people stop eating them. At any rate, I do get pangs of conscience and so lately, I've been incorporating more whole wheat as a substitute for regular flour. So I tried them first on the one thing you can't do wrong. Pancakes.

I tested a couple of recipes first but had to greatly modify them as they were really very watery and resulted in lumpy and thin pancakes. So I had to make my own.

If served with low glycemic coconut syrup, this makes for a low sugar (not zero sugar though) breakfast treat.

1 c + 2T whole wheat flour
2 1/2 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
2 T granulated sugar
1 c milk (I use reconstituted powdered skim milk)
1 egg
1 t vanilla
2 T oil (use any oil you want, though I must warn that olive may not be well suited for this as its flavor may clash with the vanilla)
oil or butter for your pan

Mix dry ingredients together. In a separate bowl, whisk milk, eggs, vanilla and oil together. Combine with dry ingredients and mix until most lumps disappear.

Pour a ladle full of mix onto a lightly greased pan and fry until bubbles form and burst. Flip over and cook the other side.

Your first pancake will probably stick a little. But keep at it. By the time you flip it, your pan will have enough oil to resist the subsequent mixtures.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Baon Bread

After a few more tries with basic bread which needs to be consumed right away, I've had to set my sights on the fact that the kids will be heading back to school in June. I would need a softer, more sandwhich-y type bread for the kids (actually just one kid na lang who is in grade school).

This bread is more typical. It has sugar in it so it produces a brown crust. The milk also softens the texture while making it still firm enough to hold sandwhich fillings. The picture at the bottom of the page is by Salvador Dali. My camera cable is missing and I can't download my pics yet. Sigh. The smell of this bread though, is the most comforting thing in the world. Oh, ok, maybe next to cinnamon.

3 c All purpose flour or 2 c all purpose plus 1 c bread flour
1 t instant weast
1 t salt
1/8 c sugar
1 c warm milk
2 T butter
warm water (if necessary)

Mix dry ingredients together. I usually use a sifter then, a wire whisk to make sure that all the dry ingredients are evenly distributed. Add the wet ingredients. Add water a little at a time if the mixture is too dry, until you get desired consistency. Make sure that the ingredients incorporate. If the dough is too sticky, add more flour, not sticky enough, add more water.

Pour dough on a flat, floured surface and knead for about ten mintues. Take special notice of the dough's transformation as you do so.

Return dough to an oiled bowl and let rise until doubled in size. This takes between 60 to 90 minutes depending on hot the day is. The hotter the temp, the faster the rise.

Shape the loaf and let it rise again until you get the desired size, but no more than one hour.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 35 mintues or until tapping the bottom of the loaf results in a hollow sound and when the bread springs back into shape if you press a finger also on the underside of the loaf.

This bread may be kept frozen for about one to two weeks then thawed before use.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Odds and Ends

I found that I have been baking more often now, grabbing a couple of hours after work or in between writing assignments and photo shoots and court hearings. There is nothing like putting ingredients together and watching people devour what you have made, happily asking for more. Its almost as satisfying as hearing a "Not guilty" verdict.

Of course, there are failures too. The puto that was made with malagkit rice and not regular rice flour tasted like a cross between kutsinta and steamed coconut milk. The kids ate them anyway. Thankfully, they haven't developed gourmet tastes yet. Or that time I ended up misreading the label and using cornstarch instead of flour for my blitz torte. My son actually asked me to repeat that because he liked it so. He claims he likes the regular torte just as much, though. Maybe he's just saying that to make me feel better.

Then there are the web discoveries. Unlike our grandmothers' time when recipes were traded or learned painstakingly, the net has made sharing so much easier. Of course, every recipe you grab off the internet must first be tested, no different from when you try out the ones I post here. Lola also had to strive for authenticity. Thus, her dinugguan had to have very precise ingredients lest her guests think that she had taken too many liberties with the pork blood. Her tulingan had to be more Batangas than the Batanguenos, so she kept kamias trees in the backyard for that real fruity sour taste you can't get from vinegar.

We have it a bit easier in an era of globalization with certain foods acquiring a universal appeal and adjustable for local our household tastes. However, in general, I have found that recipes I discover on the web are pretty good except for slight adjustments for climate and temperature, bread dough rises faster in Manila, for instance than it would in San Fransisco.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Bread Winner

I baked bread yesterday and I must admit that the smugness that makers of this home-made stuff is contagious. Most of my adult baking experience of late has largely been in avoidance of making bread. For some reason I always remember it as too much of a hassle when I was asked to bake bread as a teenager.

But as an adult, there is something satisfying with kneading dough with your hands-- its an almost hypnotic effect. Tony Perez would call it going into an alpha state or altered state of consciousness. I also think that it makes me feel like I am part of a tradition as old as agriculture itself.

The modern practise of breadmaking is credited to the Egyptians who turned the wheat berries into a paste and baked it so that it would keep for several days. The accidental application of yeast led to the raised bread forms common today. But until yeast was isolated as a separate substance in 1000 BC, the manner of reproducing leavened bread was by keeping a piece of the leavened dough of the previous loaf and adding it to the subsequent one. This method is still used today and is known as the sour dough method.

Bread was introduced during the Spanish colonial period to a largely rice consuming indigenous population in the Philippines. Though wheat is not cultivated here, flour is a steady and constantly available imported commodity.

Today, I baked a basic bread using only flour, yeast, salt, warm water and good old fashioned elbow grease. And it shocks me to no end that making my own basic bread cost me less than fifteen pesos. In subsequent posts I will be making more complex breads using additional ingredients like milk or honey or different flours like whole grain, corn flour, etc.

Happy baking.

Basic Bread
This recipe is for a light colored, plain bread that goes great with salted butter or jam. It is heavy for an afternoon meryenda, but diegests easily.

3 c All purpose flour
2 t yeast
2 t salt
1 and 1/8 cup warm water

Mix all ingredients in a bowl until the dough forms. If the mixture does not stick, adjust water by adding more. If the mixture is too sticky and clings to your fingers, add more flour.

Knead the dough on a floured surface for ten minutes and feel the dough acquire a silken consistent texture. Then form the dough into a ball, place it in a very lightly oiled bowl and cover bowl with a towel. Let the dough rise for about 90 minutes. It should double in size.

Punch down the dough and knead again lightly. Return to bowl and let it rise again for 90 minutes.

When the dough has risen again, punch down the down, knead lightly and shape into a loaf. Score the top of the bread by making long cuts on the length of the bread using asharp knife. Place the loaf on a lightly oiled cookie sheet. Allow it to rise a third time for about thirty minutes. Bake in pre-heated oven for 35-45 minutes.

The bread should have a thick crust and soft interior. Note that this bread's crust shall not darken not due to the absence of sugar. It is the sugar in the bread that caramelizes into a brown crust.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

My Slow Coooker Died

My slow cooker died. It was a new one. Brown outs are the direct cause. The indirect cause is the state of affairs of Philippine Energy.

This will  be my only directly political statement on this blog for these elections.

Two things come to mind when I blog about Philippine food and culture -- the lack of its availability to many of my countrymen and the outrageous price of the fuels we need to cook it. And so I have one request to the politicians who claim they know all the solutions to our problems:


It difficult to enjoy your food when you know so many of our countrymen are starving. Its difficult to cook when cheap fuel is not made available for you to source your food and cook it. It is impossible to cook when you can't afford many ingredients and it is all you can do to keep up with the cost of living.

I am not going to vote for someone who has stolen from government coffers. I will not vote for someone who can barely find his left foot and therefore cannot be expected to find solutions for hunger and energy issues. I will vote for someone who proposes solutions for agricultural workers and all their concerns. I will vote for someone who makes food security and energy self-sufficiency part of his platform.

That being said, I'm going to make bread today. Recipe will be up tomorrow after I've tested it.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dr. Lee on Coconuts

Coconut milk had been condemned in the past decades as deleterious to your health because of the high saturated fat and high caloric content, and it still is. But recent studies have shown that coconut milk has some health benefits as well. Coconut is quite abundant and inexpensive in the Philippines. Many people specially the poor depends on this food product for their daily existence. It's therefore not unusual to see many exquisite dishes prepared with the use of coconut milk as its basic ingredients. The Thais, Indians, Africans, Hawaiians, and of course the Filipinos have a variety of food prepared with the use of coconut milk. As a Bicolano, my taste buds longed for coconut dishes once in while. This is what I prepared two days ago and shared it with four other people with delight. Allow me to just simply call it coconut milk with vegetable because it is more descriptive.

1 can of thick coconut milk
1 dozen of large shrimp with the head on, unpeeled
2 bitter melon, cleaned and sliced into bite-size pieces
4 oriental eggplant sliced into bite-size pieces
1 yellow squash about 2 to 3 pounds in weight, peeled and sliced into bite-size pieces
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 onion, minced
1 ginger root, minced
1 teaspoonful of peppercorn
salt to taste

Heat 1 tablespoonful of canola oil, add the ginger and garlic until it turns golden brown. Add the onion and saute the shrimp for a few minutes, remove from sauce pan and set aside.

Using the same saucepan or wok, boil 1 can of chicken broth and cook the eggplant, bitter melon, and squash until it is almost done. Add the peppercorn, coconut milk and shrimp and allow to simmer until the vegetables are well done. Add salt to taste. For a spicy dish, add red chili pepper according to your taste and desire.

Serve with freshly cooked jasmine rice.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Chinese cooking in the Philippines

I am descended from Sangleys, the Chinese who settled in Cavite. My great-grandfather, Alejandro Lavina left Cavite and settled in Cabuyao, Laguna, in the late 1800s. This was a time of revolution and I strongly suspect that Lelong may have been either fleeing the escalating violence or he was running from the Spanish authorities who may have suspected some kind of Katipunan ties. The latter is more likely, as Lelong later joined the Philippine forces in the Philippine-American war.

But this was indicative of the times. The Chinese were merely tolerated by the Spanish colonizers who never really quite shook off their fear of the pirate Lima-Hong, whose forces successfully breached what they then thought of as the impenetrable Intramuros walls. When Filipinos finally took the reins of power, we were not much different in our xenophobia to the point where laws were enacted specifically targetting the Chinese, whos industry and parimony allowed them to undercut the average Filipino businessman's profits. The Retail Trade Nationalization Act was passed because of this.

Still, despite all that, Chinese culture found its way into mainstream society, and food like pancit, siopao, sio mai and the more modern pearl drinks became part of our own cultural expression.

Perhaps because Chinese food is so integrated into the Philippine cultural experience, cooking schools teach it as a regular part of their curriculum. I learned this recipe in the basic cooking course.

Shrimp on Toast

1/2 k shrimp
1/2 c Chinese rice wine
sesame seeds
sesame oil
3 eggs
1 1/2 c cornstarch
1 t salt
1 t vetsin (optional)

Peel and marinate the shrimps in salt and wine for 3 hours. Pour sesame oil on it after three hours.

Beat eggs, then add cornstarch a little at a time until fully blended. Put shrimp into the egg mixture. Once fully coated, spoon shrimp one by one onto halved bread slices, Top with bacon and sprinkle sesame seeds. Deep fry until golden brown.

1 small can pineapple juice
2 T catsup
1 t tabasco
1/2 c sugar
2 T flour
1 T vinegar
1/2 t salt

Mix all in a saucepan over low fire, until desired thickness.

For an interesting discussion on the origins of allegedly popular Chinese food dishes, check this site:

Friday, April 23, 2010

Pineapple Upside-down Cake

Still on the subject of meryenda. This is an easy cake to make, no need to frost or ice and goes perfectly with coffee.

To make it, one can use instant cake mix for yellow cake and simply add 5 tablespoons of pineapple juice to the recipe and the topping. For those who make their cakes from scratch, however, I've listed everything needed.

In your cake pan, spread 1/2 c butter (I use butter compound) on the pan floor. Lightly grease the sides. Add 1 cup brown sugar and spread it evenly. Add and arrange about 8 slices of canned pineapples, drained. Note that if you put in too many pineapples the cake will not absorb the brown sugar topping, so I would adives one not to go overboard with the pineapples.

Yellow Pineapple Cake
2 c All purpose flour
1 1/4 c white sugar
2 1/2 t baking powder
1 t salt
1/3 c shortening (I use butter compound)
1 c milk
1 t vanilla
1 egg
5 T pineapple juice

Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the shortening and 2/3 of the milk. Beat at medium high speed constantly scraping the sides. Add remaining milk, pineapple juice and egg. Beat well then pour over prepared pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for about thirty minutes or until the knife inserted into cake comes out clean.

Turn pan upside down onto cake plate while still hot. Serve.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Leilani, a reader and friend has an interesting blood mix in her family: Filipino/Hungarian/Chinese/American/Syrian

To accomodate the various tastes, by necessity she must be creative. Here is one of her concoctions.

Slice a head of onion
8 or more gloves of garlic, in chunks
2 med sized tomatoes, chopped up
6-10 anchovies from a jar or can
Fresh & thin asparagus. cut up
Slice grilled tofu into strips
Extra virgin olive oil or vegetable oil

Saute the lst four ingredients, adding the anchovies when tomatoes

are nearly cooked. Add the tougher end of the asparagus to allow it

to cook sufficienty. When halfway cooked, add the top part of the vegetable. Add the tofu slices and spinach, fold in gently with the mixture. Allow spinach to wilt, keeping its bright green color...Serve up with rice or potatoes.
Kain na po!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Blitz Torte and Meryenda

Meryenda bridges the hunger between lunch and dinner. Inappropriately called a "snack" by the less evolved, it is more of a small meal for most Pinoys, something akin to a British high tea. In these modern times, they can be sandwhiches and juice combinations for children, while the more sophisticated have cake or pastry with afternoon coffee.

When I was younger, lola would make palitaw for me, or banana fritters that my yayas would call maruya. On Holy Week she would make pospas for the pabasa singers, and of course for me. While Lola had a modern gas oven in her 1950s remodeled kitchen, she also had -- not one, but two -- wood fired ovens in the back. One was the traditional horno made of brick and mortar, where she would do the heavy roasting or the light baking -- think bibinka for meryenda even when it wasn't Christmas. The other was what she termed an "American style" upright metal oven that looked like a lightweight steel safe without a dial. She said she used this during the war years.

But it was Lola, and later on my mother who firmly established the meryenda as a mini-meal, to be shared and prepared for with as much fanfare as the family dinner. But my mother had more modern tastes, so meryenda was usually something freshly baked, like her special honey raisin bread that only needed the faintest spread of butter for full enjoyment.

As I settled into a larger home and my law practise became more routine (if one can call kidnappings and murder cases, routine) I now have more time to spend making meryenda time reminiscent of lola's or Ma's. For meryenda, I bake cakes, like this one I learned from Tita Ruth (Guingona), called blitz torte. Its a light meryenda cake that will still allow you just enough room for dinner.

1/2 c butter
1/2 c sugar
4 egg yolks
1 t vanilla
3 T milk
1 t baking powder
1 c all purpose flour

6 egg whites
3/4 c sugar
cinammon powder
chopped almonds

Cream butter and sugar until fluffy but grainy. Add egg yolks one by one beating thoroughly in between. Add milk and vanilla. Then add dry ingredients. Set aside.

With an electric mixer set on medium high, beat egg whites until slightly frothy. Add sugar a little at a time, beating continuously. Keep beating until stiff peaks form.

Pour batter into two greased removable bottom pans. Pour merengue mixture on top. Top with chopped nuts, sprinkle with cinammon and sugar. Bake in 350 degree pre-heated oven until the cake portion tests done.

Cream Filling:

2T butter
1/4 c sugar
3 T conrnstarch
1/8 t salt
1 c milk
2 egg yolks
1 t vanilla

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir continuously until thick.  While hot, spread between two layers of the torte.

Note when the cake is baked, remove one layer from the pan and set on a serving plate merengue side down. Spread filling on top,  then top with second layer, merengue side up.
Others, however, serve both layers merengue side up as shown in the picture. Your choice.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Basic Chocolate Cake

Very few kids can turn down chocolate. And even fewer can turn down rich chocolate cake. The bakeries will attest that it is the best selling cake flavor for birthday cakes and in some bakeries, even for wedding cakes.

My lola, mother, aunts, cousins and sisters all made chocolate cakes with slight variations on taste, usually on the frosting that is used. Cooking school teaches us that it is one of the basic cakes that aspiring bakers must cut their teeth on. 

Basic Chocolate Cake
1 c butter
2 c sugar
4 eggs
1 c sour milk
2 c all purpose flour
1/2 c cocoa powder
1/4 t salt
1 t baking powder
2 t baking soda
1 t vanilla

Sift all dry ingredients together.

Cream butter and sugar (this works better and easier if butter is softened by taking it out of the fridge early) until fluffy but grainy. Add eggs one by one.

Mix in one part of dry ingredients. Alternate with milk, ending with dry ingredients.

Add vanilla.

Bake in 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes or until knife inserted into center comes out clean. 

Glossy Chocolate Frosting
1c sugar
5T cocoa
3/4 c boiling water
1/2 t vanilla
3T cornstarch
1/4 t salt
3T butter

Boil water, then pour into a pan containing the sugar and cocoa powder. Keep heat on so water is just under boiling point. Keep stirring constantly. Add cornstarch and salt. When fully combined, take off heat and add butter. Spread over cake while hot.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

To be or not to be

"Whats wrong? Sometimes I also miss meals!"
Gloria Arroyo alleged President
when informed about the statistics of hunger in the Philippines

On my Facebook, there is a link to a site that shows the by now famous and award winning short film, Chicken a la Carte, by Ferdinand Dimadura. It traces food served in a fast food restaurant, turned into left overs, collected as pig slop and finding its way into the homes of an impoverished family in the slums, to be served as dinner. To say the least, it is painful to watch and difficult to forget, particularly the part where the family gives thanks to God for their supper. Despite the sometimes trivial and facetious nature of Facebook, I keep that short film on my wall because it keeps me grounded.

In a country where the statistics vary only on just how high the poverty rate is at the moment (it ranges from 60 percent to 80 percent, depending on whether or not the President is legitimate), it is sometimes ironic that I find myself writing a food blog. But here it is and here we are.

I know that this kind of writing is guaranteed to make people want to click off and go to some site where consciences aren't troubled by the starving. And I wouldn't blame you. I will eventually get back to writing about food and related matters, but I find it essential, at this time and just before Holy Week, to consider and ask readers to think just how much or how little trouble would it be, to give out biscuits to the old man or little girl tapping on your car window?

I know that we have bought into the canard that we should not give beggars anything because they may be pawns of criminal syndicates. But personally, I just can't. When someone begs me for something because they are hungry I will take it in good faith. The rule of evidence states that a positive assertion is generally acceptable as the truth, unless proven otherwise. And if an adolescent boy, stunted in height who sleeps in the streets tells me he is hungry, hell, I will assume that he is, and I will give what little I can.

Over one year ago, I took in a street child and allowed him to sleep in my house. There was a typhoon, and my son, who had befriended him asked me if this boy could stay even if it was just for the duration of the storm. The boy had been sleeping in jeepneys and making a living selling rags. My son and his friends had befriended him and sort of adopted him, but were terrified that their parents would find out.

That boy is still with me and has gotten great grades in school. I wonder what my life would be without him if others had not taken pity on him and given him just enough food so that he was alive when we came along.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Talbos ng Kamote

Pinoys love to use food expressions. The more archaic of my law professors would reminisce about their own professors telling them to go home and plant camote in a successful attempt to further mystify their approach to jurisprudence. They also would still describe some of our more befuddled classmates as "nangangamote." Cliche though it may have been, considering how indispensable (and delicious) the sweet potato is, I wouldn't mind calling a spade a camote.

Dr. Lee is in again.

Sweet potatoes are easy to grow in the tropics all year round. In the rural areas of the Philippines, one can often find patches of sweet potato plants in the yards of almost every house or hut. The food values of sweet potato leaves are often under-estimated. Sweet potato leaves contains vitamins and iron as well as anti-oxidants. Fifteen compounds have been founds that could prevent heart disease, diabetes, some infection and some type of cancer, according to researchers.
Sweet potato leaves are not available in your average American grocery stores. In Houston, this particular vegetable can be found in Chinatown where there is a demand for it. It fetches a price four times higher than cabbage and napa, three times higher than oriental eggplant, bitter melon, bok choy, celery, and green beans. If you take the stems (which has to be discarded before cooking), that comes with it when you purchase it, the price is even higher. Yet, camote leaves, as it is called in the Philippines is considered a "poor man's food." Poor man's food or not, I love the camote leaves with gata and crabs. The spicier the dish, the better. I grew up with it as a kid in Bicol. Bicolanos are noted for their hot dishes such as the Bicol express.
These are the recipes for sweet potato leaves:

Salad: boil the sweet potato leaves for 10 seconds, remove and drain. Add a few slices of tomatoes and unions and use oil and vinegar for dressing.
Sinigang: just like any sinigang dish, try using sweet potato leaves instead of spinach or kang kong. Add slices of tomatoes, onions, green and red bell peppers, garlic, chilies, and slivers of gingers. For 4 servings, use 4 cans of 99% fat-free chicken broth. For sour taste, you have the choice of using lemon, or calamansi juice, apple cider vinegar, powdered tamarind or tamarind concentrate. The only problem with tamarind is that it will make the soup looked murky and brownish. Not an appetizing sight. Place your milk fish or bangus on top of the vegetables, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes. By doing so, you are part boiling and steam cooking the fish, thus retaining the sweetness flavor of the bangus.
Blue crabs or alimasag with sweet potato leaves and coconut milk: Clean about a dozen of blue crabs, discarding all the shells and legs and gills. Cut the crabs into two, saute' the crabs in lots of garlic, add a can of coconut milk and cook thoroughly. Add chili for a more spicy dish.
Sweet potato leaves can also be stir-fried with shrimp. Make you blanch the leaves first before cooking.
In the Philippines, we call a dim-wit disparagingly as a "camote" or worse, "camote na, may uud pa."

Next time you hear the word camote, run home and fix yourself a camote leaves dish.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Northern Eating

Abra, in the North is home to the Itnegs and Tingguian cultural community known for their cotton weaving with frog embroidered designs. It is a rapidly vanishing cultural community largely to the vast denudation of its ancestral domains.
It is also home to part of the Ilocano nation, famed for its parsimonious though no less delicious cooking. Prof. Vic Torres writes about his culinary adventures in this part of the great Philippine North.

(A Small Adventure in Ilocano Food Culture)

Bitter is said to be the taste of the Ilocano palate. Probably because their lives were forged from the hardships of the mountain life. The patience of the Ilocano, however, has created a unique food culture from ingredients produced by the harsh highland climate and its rich soil.

My first taste of Ilocano cuisine started with what seemed to be the most common dish of that region to grace the Philippine table – pinakbet.

So far I had tasted pinakbet (or pakbet) cooked three ways. The only difference was that the ingredients used ranged the flavors from a plain meaty sauté to a fish-flavored salty.
The Tagalog pinakbet is oily because of the bits of fatty pork used for the sauté. Bagoong alamang is then added along with the usual ingredients of tomato, eggplant, ampalaya, okra and squash. This is the way my mother (a full-blooded Manileña) prepared it.

One of our maids before, a true-blue native from Abra, cooked two kinds of pinakbet : one made with bagoong isda and the other with patis. The latter was an alternative ingredient for diners who preferred a light, salty taste to the dish. It is also a safe substitute for those who are allergic to bagoong.

For a while, pinakbet seemed to be the only genuine Ilocano dish I was fated to taste in my lifetime as there are few (of which I have not visited) restaurants in Manila that served genuine Ilocano dishes. I hated traveling so that temporarily reduces my chances of visiting the Ilocos.

Until in 1995 when my wife Nikki, and I went on a trip to the North. Destination: Bangued, Abra.
This was a trip that had been planned for quite some time. I had been a father for a year now. Nikki was jobless but needed a break from the hassles of child-caring. And the baby had to be seen by her aunts and great-grandmother,

So, after much persuasion, I agreed to go to Abra. I must admit for an infrequent traveler, I was excited.
It took eight hours by car to reach Abra. Luckily, the traffic was still light. We left at four in the morning, Palm Sunday. Though it was the start of Holy Week, vacation from office work was still four days away. It was twilight when we arrived in Bangued.

Dinner at the house of Nikki’s grandmother was hurriedly-prepared dishes of nilagang baka, fried bangus and rice.

“How good is Ilocano fare in Abra?” I asked off-handedly. Manang Maribel (Nikki’s aunt) and Lola Esther (Nikki’s grandmother) were only glad to oblige in preparing Ilocano food for a “city boy.” I later discovered that Ilocano dishes were exotic enough that they had to wait for nature to “create” the ingredients. It was, as some food writers would describe it, frontier food.

There was hipon (pronounced “i-pon”) which was not the crustacean we are familiar with but a fish fry. They were no bigger than a pencil eraser. This species of fresh-water fish swims in large schools to the mouth of the Calaba River (one of the main waterways of the province) to the South China Sea in the first months of the year. The fishes change color from dark gray to white back again to gray during its migration to the sea and back to the river. It was during this transformation that fishermen anchored at the mouth of the river would lower fine-meshed nets and scoop up the yellowish-white fingerlings. These were then hauled to shore and spread out to dry. It is displayed in the market in small mounds and sold by the glass or evaporated milk can. Hipon turns a light brown when fried or a bright, orangey color when sautéed with onions and tomatoes. They have a buttery taste with just a tinge of fresh saltiness from the sea.

Another kind of fish was the palileng - a river fish sold skewered on a bamboo sticks. The number of fishes per stick depends on their sizes. There are usually four to eight pieces on a stick. Palilengs are roasted on an open fire until charred black and hard. It was a way of preserving the fish. Eaten plain, the flesh is tough and rubbery. Ilocanos prefer it cooked in a paksiw as the fish softens, bones and all, when prepared this way.
Bagnet is defined in the old Spanish-Iloko dictionaries as “something that is half-dried.” It also refers to the Ilocano dish of deep-fried hunks of pork similar to the Tagalog lechon kawali. Bagnet is so popular as an Ilocano dish that it is sold by the kilo side by side with the fresh meat stalls in the public market.

Preparing bagnet involves hanging and air-drying the meat thoroughly before it is deep-fried in oil. Water is splashed on the skin at the right moment to make it blister. Cooked to a crisp, the bagnet is then hung again to let the oil drip out. Storing is done with little fuss as it lasts a long time.

Chopped, the bagnet separates into succulent, flaky crisp pieces of skin and meat. Sometimes the tender, pinkish-white meat peeks deliciously below the browned skin. The Ilocano way of eating this dish is with a dip of sliced tomatoes, chopped onions and vinegar or fish bagoong.

Sinanglaw is a dish made of cow innards cooked with ginger, pepper and papait (bile). The result is a stew richly-yellowed by the bile and fat. One sip of the broth lets loose a mixed bitter, meaty sweet, spicy flavor very much like the papaitan cooked with goat meat.

But the most unforgettable dish I had was the one served to us by Lola Esther. Nikki and I found her one day sitting at the dining table before a small plastic basin full of water. Settled at the bottom of the basin is what seemed to be a mound of soil and tree bark flecked with white specks of what looked like insect eggs. Floating on the water were dead ants. Hundreds of them.

“What is that?” Nikki asked.

“Abu-os.” Lola Esther replied. “Ant eggs.” She deftly scooped out a handful of dead ants and debris. “We will have it for dinner.”

After cleaning, the ant eggs are then sautéed with tomatoes, onions and soy sauce. The resulting exotic dish resembles caviar only white in appearance. If one could get over the squeamishness of the dead ants still clinging to it, abu-os has a salty, slightly creamy taste to the uninitiated palate. It is a dish you have to acquire a taste for.

Other Ilocano dishes I had during my stay in Abra was imbaligtad. This was sliced lean pork and liver mixed with ginger, onions, pepper and a little vinegar (the Ilocano kind). A hot pan with very little oil is heated then the ingredients are dropped in. Cooking time is very short. Just enough to sizzle the meat brown.

Then, of course, there was dinengdeng. This is second only to being the common Ilocano dish to the pinakbet. Like the latter, dinengdeng shows the Ilocano genius in making do with the ingredients available to them. It is cooked with practically any green leafy vegetable that can be placed in the pot. Flavoring, such as bagoong isda, is added. The ingredients are then simmered together until cooked. My father-in-law likes this dish with bits of roasted fish like dalag for added flavor and aroma. The more roasted the fish, the better.

Novelist and National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose taught me a brief lesson in Ilocano food culture during a trip up north in 2001

Going back to Manila after an overnight stay in Ilocos Norte, we stopped at the town market in Sinait. Like almost all the small-town markets, the one in this part of Ilocos Norte was a low-roofed concreted space some distance away from the town plaza.

Jose pointed out the vegetable stalls. “You can identify the dishes in a place just by looking at the ingredients you can buy in the market. For Ilocanos, you can see the ingredients of pakbet almost everywhere.”
The produce were spaced out on mats and sheets of plastic sacks. There were piles of ampalaya and eggplants – the small kinds favored for stewing. Stalks of yellow squash flowers lay tied up in bundles. There were piles of red tomatoes; hunks of ginger root and bundles of red onions. There was a pungent smell of garlic – the strong-smelling kind that is grown in the Ilocos. Wreaths of this favored household spice hung from stalls where it is sold by the kilo.

A product sold on one side of the market was very conspicuous because of the stink it made in the place: bagoong. There were small barrels and pails of it sold side by side with bottles of golden-brown patis. Flies also buzzed heavily around the containers. One could not miss that side of the market – it stank to high heavens.

“Have you ever seen how bagoong is made?” Frankie asked me, “If you haven’t, don’t. You wouldn’t eat it once you saw how it’s done.”

There is one thing I noticed in the market: there were no meat stalls inside. All the fresh food were sold in an open space outside. Fish and meat were displayed on open boards. And like all Ilocano markets there was at least one stall selling bagnet. The meat hunks were literally stacked on top of each other.

What was unsettling for me about the place was the language barrier. Frankie was comfortable talking in Ilocano with his provincemates. It took only two words from me (magkano ito?) for the vendors to realize that they were dealing with an out-of-towner. One of them even mistook me for a Japanese. I decided to just shut up and let my companion do the talking.

He was soon shaking his head and laughing as we walked back to his car, carrying our bag of vegetables. “You stand out like a foreigner in an Ilocano market,” he said.

A fitting reminder on how one can still be an alien to his own country’s culture.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Adventures in Dining Out

I'm not a superhero. But I do have one secret "power." I'm invisible to waiters. I could stand on my head, juggle with the plates, do the cancan and I would still be ignored. If anyone could die of starvation in a restaurant, that would be me. I can see myself now, all skin and bones carrying a sign, "died waiting."

Waiters, they say, are trained to be discreet and look towards the male of a couple. In my case, they do take it to ridiculous lengths, even if I dine alone. When I'm with a group, I usually raise my hand to call the attention of a waiter, any waiter, busboy, maitre d', anybody and I wouldn't get so much as a response. But if my companion even twitches his arm upward, you have a solicitous server whispering sweet delectables in his ear. Thus, I have learned to ask whoever I'm with for whatever I need to order. You do what you have to, to survive.

Which brings me to another problem. When I used to date -- back in the Upper Cretaceous-- I found that I tended to date guys who are irresistible to waitresses. They would banter with my dates, bring them water, unasked. We would get extra cream, sugar, freebies, and they would get some boyish smile in return. Usually I didn't mind, until one time, the waitress asked if he wanted take-out. She meant herself, of course. But she doesn't want him now that he's missing all his front teeth.

Which is why I love fast food places. They actually see me there. I love how when I walk in they call me "M'am/Sir" or that they ask me three times what name they would call me -- I usually respond with something strange like, "Marian Rivera" or "Demi Moore."  When I'm in a particularly loving mood, I give my name as "Loch Ness" and then they go out of their way to deliver the food to my table, instead of calling me over to pick it up. Sometimes they add a funny toy to keep me quiet. Maybe they're hoping I won't break out of my lucid interval.

So there really is a lot of fun to be had in dining out. And its not always about the food, either.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Eat Your Vegetables

Dr. Lee is back with travels and vegetables.

by Dr. Albert Lee
As an avid photographer, I usually have my camera with me whenever I dine out, be it in my hometown or abroad. In the many places that I have visited, getting to the kitchen to talk to the chef and watch him cook is not an obstacle. If the food is excellent, I tell the waiter/waitress to convey the message to the chef. Without fail, the chef will come out of the kitchen and thank me for the compliment. After all, almost everyone is proud of his/her work regardless of their profession.
In Amsterdam, I saw a sign in front of the restaurant that says, "special for today----fish head soup." I was intrigued so I went in to check it out as I am very fond of fish head soup. I later found out that fish head soup is a delicacy among Hungarians, so he said.
In Beijing, I was able to penetrate the kitchen to watch the art of preparing Peiking duck at the Peiking duck restaurant. This restaurant exclusively serve Peiking duck only. What a delight to see a spotless kitchen with charming chefs in their white uniforms. To me, they all looked like surgeons ready to do a major operation. As a matter of fact, the chef will carve the duck in front of the customers like a surgeon taking out a gallbladder----with ease and finesse.
Just a few days ago, I was invited to dine at an authentic vegetarian restaurant in downtown Houston. Looking around, I saw several dishes being served to customers close to our table which arouse my curiosities. I asked to see the chef and was pleasantly surprised by the eagerness of the chef to show me his kitchen. Soon, we were talking like long lost cousins and he was showing me how he prepares the dishes. Oh, what an artist he is! We had a hearty meal and I was able to take numerous photographs of his work.
Vegetarian food must be the healthiest food for humans. A vegetarian diet is nutritionally adequate. A person living on a vegetarian diet can add ten to fifteen years to his longevity. People on this diet has less chances of developing high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus, coronary heart disease, cancer, gallstones, obesity and food born diseases. In the United States the total direct medical cost attributable to meat consumption were estimated to be 30 to 60 billion dollars per year for the diseases mentioned above.
The vegetarian food derives its protein from beans and lentils-----kidney beans, lima beans, pinto beans, cranberry, great northern, garbanzo, soy, and black eye peas.
Soy has isoflavones such as genistein and daidzein, which act as phytoestrogens which inhibit tumor growth, lower cholesterol, lower risk of blood clots and lower bone loss. In contrast, grilled, cured and smoked meat and fish produce cyclic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic amines which are carcinogenic.
Broccoli, brussels sprout, cabbage and cauliflower has cancer protective properties.

Carrots, tomatoes, cucumber, grapes, cantaloupe and berries have all their unique benefits. Whole grains, flaxseed, nuts, garlic, turmeric, scallions, onions, chives, ginger, rosemary thyme, oregano, sage and basil are all known to have significant benefits for our body. Mushroom such as white mushroom, sheitake, maitake, oyster and enoki mushrooms are widely available through culture and these add to the flavors of vegetarian dishes.
People on pure vegetarian diets must take B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron and zinc supplements.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Egg Recall

Memories are made of these... Papa was the early riser. A military officer, it was not unusual for him to be up at 4am. He would go out and buy a paper and read until breakfast. I can picture him in my mind, back to the window, enjoying the early morning sun. I would sometimes join him and he would give me the comics page to read for myself.

If it was early enough, he would make me breakfast. Everyone else would be asleep, so it wouuld be just the two of us. He would fry up the day old rice in flavored oil -- no history of heart disease in his family, so he wasn't above using the run-off oil from the rendered bacon.

He would pound a head of garlic, remove the skins and press the garlic cloves flat with the side of a knife and toss this in some heated oil (or butter) He would scrounge around for leftover meat or vegetables to add to the mix. My favorite was when he would put peas in it. Having previously separated the sticky rice, using his fingers, he would then toss this into the wok and keep tossing it around, so that the rice would fry in just a little bit of oil.

When this was done, he would fry up tapa that my mother would have already cured, mixed and flavored.

Last he would fry up an egg. Sunny-side up and flawless. He never liked the eggs burned, even slightly at the edges. He also would instruct the maids never to break the cooked egg.

Breakfast with him was usually a quiet affair, as he was a quiet man. But one practise I remember is how he would first put the egg on his plate, pile on the rice, then slice up the egg through the rice so the yolk would permeate. He would then add salt and pepper and eat this with meat or fish.

Years later, I would cook breakfast for my own kids and teach them to eat the egg with fried rice. Since I would prefer to live a little longer, I use vegetable oil in frying rice and instead of frying, I poach the eggs. But breakfast with at least one of my kids is a tradition of precious moments.

Poached Eggs

Put water in a saucepan and heat until actively boiling. Add vinegar in 1:2 proportions to water. Add salt. When the liquid resumes actively boiling, crack the egg into the water. It usually takes about a minute and a half for a soft boiled poached egg and about three minutes for a hard boiled one. Remove egg from water with a slotted spoon. Repeat with the next egg.

Friday, February 19, 2010


My grandfather, Filimon Lavina (with an enye) was the eldest son of Alejandro who moved to Cabuyao, Laguna around the time of the Cavite Mutiny. Years later, Alejandro's great grandaughter (thats me) would speculate about his participation in that event.
Lelong Andong was a veteran of the Philippine American War, and, like many others of the time, would bring his baon to the battlefield, usually wrapped in banana leaves. During that time, wars were more civilized. Both sides would take lunch and siesta breaks before renewing hostilities in the afternoon. He would also go home at night. At least that is the kwento that got passed on down to me.
Prof. Vic Torres is a historian and professor in a prestigious university on Taft Avenue, who, coincidentally comes from my lolo's hometown. We haven't yet discovered any blood ties, but considering that Cabuyao really is a small town, I wouldn't be surprised.

Memories of Cooking in a Laguna Town)

“In fact, in the traditional Filipino school of
virtuous cooking, known as “mix and taste,”
rote measurements are disdained as inimical
to a true cook’s creativity. One simply knew
how to make superlative sweets from watching
them made in one’s house numberless times;
no one bothered to write down measurements.”
Luning Bonifacio Ira
“Sweet and Sour”

The Cabuyao I remembered in my youth was not the bustling, modernized fastfood lined streets you would see now.

The Cabuyao I knew then was a quiet town of Laguna - a two-hour bus ride from Pasay City where the BLTB bus terminal was. The South Superhighway then reached up only until Alabang. Going to Laguna meant passing through Muntinglupa (where the smell of roasting coffee was in the air near the Nescafe factory) before entering the first provincial town - Biñan.

Going to Cabuyao for me also meant tasting old-fashioned provincial cooking.

Cooking was one of the means of livelihood for my father’s family. Papa once told me how he earned money by selling buko and chicharon in Calamba (which, like the days of Rizal, was the center of Laguna’s economic activity). He would then deposit his earnings in a savings account that he dipped into from time to time to buy personal things. He would proudly point to one of the tocadors in their house saying he bought that cabinet with chicharon.

My father’s ancestral house in Cabuyao was located beside the town school. So they decided to put up a canteen managed by my two aunts. It was a high-roofed room that was annexed to the old house. One side was lined with counters with glass-covered shelves filled with kakanins, short orders and the menu of the day. The eating area can seat fifty students on long wooden tables and benches.

My childhood summer vacation days in Cabuyao meant eating three times a day (not including meriendas) in that canteen. A meal prepared for me by my aunts meant a mound of steaming rice scooped from a large pot on the stove onto a plastic plate and a pile of viands taken from trays in the glass shelves.

Every time there is a family occasion, my two spinster aunts Tita Ising and Tita Siani (Cha Ising and Cha Siani) would begin preparing food early in the morning. Preserves and pickles were made at least a week before. Kakanin was in stock for the two would cook a large batch for the canteen.

It was Tita Ising who woke up at four a.m. to go to the public market in Calamba. At around eight, she would return home with a jeepload of goods. A jeepload meant a lot for the jeepneys then were the extra-long, stainless-steel, twenty-seaters manufactured in Biñan.

A special pasalubong from Tita Ising was butchi - that fried pastry of glutinous rice stuffed with sweetened mongo beans or kundol . She would buy half a dozen pieces for me and my cousins. They came in a paper bag which would soon become stained with the oil the butchi was fried in.

The unloaded goods showed hints of the different dishes to be cooked that day – slabs of fresh pork and beef, chunks of cow’s liver for the pastel hubad (more on this later); bags of vegetables varying from leafy cabbages to sticks of ubod; the saucer-size circles of raw nata de coco swimming in metal tubs of fresh water; a dozen niyogs along with some macapunos; kaengs of green mangoes for the buro; paper sacks of malagkit rice to be ground into galapong – the base for some of the sweetened kakanin.

These were piled on the kitchen counter with the bottles of condiments and sauces. On one side were the plastic packs and cans of spices like pamintang buo, saffron, pamintang durog and rock salt. There were no pre-packed sauces yet. Everything was made from scratch. Vinegar was the pure, fermented coconut water or palm juice and not the chemically-treated ones. If bottled condiments were needed, the two cooks were not particular about any brand as long as everything was mixed properly and the final result tasted right.

Cooking in the canteen kitchen for a family affair meant lighting up six burners: four were from two table-top gas stoves while the other two were from two kerosene kalans with those tanks that you continuously pump to get a blue flame going. There were also open charcoal cooking grills and makeshift hearths in the backyard for the kawas and cauldrons.

The unforgettable flavors that I tasted from provincial cooking were sweet and sour. – sweet from the fruit preserves and kakanins that Tita Ising prepared; sour from the various buros and atcharas that Tita Siani made.

Preserves were a specialty of Tita Ising. I remember the kamias, siniguelas, santol (both pulp and skin) and even watermelon rinds that were collecfted in small plastic basins, waiting to be transformed into delicacies. Tita Ising rolled the kamias fruits with the palm of her hand on one of the wooden benches while pressing down to squeeze out the juice. What was left was a wrinkled, green mass like an elongated, wet prune.

For santol preserves, she peeled the rough santol skin then broke the fruit open to scoop out the pulpy seeds. Both rind and seeds were then placed in separate containers. Slits were cut into the siniguelas fruits deep enough till the knife point touches the seed.

Watermelon rinds required some work. Tita Ising chose the ones with thick skins. After slicing out the pulp (which we kids would greedily eat with red juice dripping from lips and fingers while spitting out the pips on plates or at each other), she then peeled the skin. Tita Ising showed me the greenish-white rind with a thin sheen of red pulp. “Peel it this way,” she said, “Leave some of the red pulp for color.”

The fruits were then soaked for a day in a solution of apog (powdered lime) and water. The measurement of the lime and water is a classic method of “mix and taste” cooking. Asked how much lime is to be used, Tita Ising held out her middle finger and press down on the first digit with her thumb.

“That much,” she said, “depending on the amount you want to cook.” Add a little more if you have more fruit. “Pangkunat lang,” she says.

After pickling in the lime solution for a day, the fruit is washed thoroughly then dropped in a boiling solution of syrup made out of equal cups of sugar and water. The secret is to literally pickle the fruits in the syrup. But not too long and not too short a time. Let the fruits stand in the syrup for a couple of days. Then it is ready.

The atcharas and buros of Tita Siani were easier to do. The secret for its delicious sourness is the timing.

The boiled vinegar must be of the right temperature: not too hot or the bottle will explode and not lukeward or the atchara will not pickle right. It should be just hot enough to semi-cook the vegetables (to remove its rawness) and then pickle it.

It is the same thing with her buros. In this case, it was either mango, mustasa or spring onion leaves. Except for the mangoes, Tita Siani always emphasized washing the leaves first in hugas bigas (rice washing). Then she pours in her vinegar-sugar-salt brew. The measurements were not exact and Tita Siani never mentioned spoonfuls or cupfuls. “It’s all in the taste,” she said. I often wondered how many experiments she made before she got the “taste” right. But the results were unforgettable. Her buros were a favorite sidedish in family reunion meals.

A traditional dish which served as both viand for meals and pulutan for the family drinkers was the pastel hubad (literally ‘naked pastel).”

The dish is almost identical to the Spanish pastel but without its thick, baked crust. The Cabuyao pastel was a mixture of cubed fatty pork, liver, carrots, pickles, soy sauce, tomato paste and the entire bottle of juice the pickles were packed in. No water and no other added seasoning. Just simmer the meat, vegetables and seasonings into a pot until the pork begins to render its fat. Add the tomato paste for color then some pickle juice until a sweetish flavor is obtained. No exact measurements. Again, mix and taste enriches the flavor fo the food.

Aside from the preserves, dessert was a sugary treat consisting of a glutinous rice cake we called sinukmani (biko to other Tagalogs), antala and halayang ube.

These three kakanins were cooked with the skill and care that only old-time cooks knew. The sinukmani and antala were made from malagkit, coconut milk and sugar. The malagkit is boiled in a pot then cooked in a pan with the milk and sugar. Sinukmani is made with brown sugar while antala with white (refinado). It is then stirred over a low fire until it solidifies into a sticky mass. Latik is made from coconut gratings and sugar toasted into brown sweet fragments. This is then sprinkled over the kakanins.

Halayang ube is made from ube tubers grated very finely. The violet mass is then mixed with condensed milk and sugar. Like sinukmani, it is continuously stirred over a low fire until sticky.

The difficult task in making these kakanins is the stirring of the sticky mass so it will mix properly. Tita Ising’s arms became beefy through the years of hard stirring she had to do. Aunts, uncles, cousins and even hired help would beg off from doing this. Now I could only smile and think how much good food can come out of hard work.

There were other dishes that graced the family table in Cabuyao. What I write here are the only ones I now remember. Sometime in the early 1990s, I wrote down the recipes of the preserves, atcharas and buros in a small notepad. Unfortunately, I lost the pad, misplacing it among the papers in the house. I managed to experiment on these recipes based on what I remembered and was successful in some especially the preserved watermelon rinds.

True to the tragedies of family recipes, the ones in Cabuyao have almost disappeared. Tita Siani died in 1998 while Tita Ising died in 2003. Almost none of my cousins inherited the perfection of Tita Ising and Tita Siani’s cooking. But from time to time, they experimented. I recently discovered that one of my cousins has duplicated the delicious pastel hubad. I quickly got the recipe from her. There will come a time when I would cook it myself. Maybe to relive a food taste from the past.

I guess it is enough to say food lives on.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Please be careful with my Heart

Dr. Albert Lee's recipe for a heart-friendly dinner in this month of cardiac arrests.

Steam-cooking is the healthiest way to prepare food. Almost all the common vegetables in the market or grocery stores can be prepared by steam-cooking with ease without losing its nutritional values.
Among sea foods, fish is the most popular for steam-cooking. In my opinion, black grouper, flounder, red snapper, golden pompano, and sea bass are best suited for this kind of cooking. If live fish is available, that would be wonderful. Otherwise, the fresher the fish, the better. The best size fish, for practical reasons, would be something weighing around one and half to two pounds in weight. For steam-cooking, one would need a metal or a bamboo steamer.

1 whole fish, cleaned thoroughly.
1 bundle of scallions, cut lengthwise

1 bundle of cilantro

1 teaspoon of sesame oil

1 teaspoon of mushroom soy sauce

1 fresh ginger, cut into strips

3 cloves of fresh garlic, minced

salt to taste
Place the whole fish in a 1 inch deep platter, sprinkle it with salt and add the garlic and soy. Place the platter in the steamer, cover, and steam for about 20 minutes. To find out if the fish is cooked or not, insert a fork on the meatiest portion of the fish. If the flesh is flaky and not stuck to the bones, you know you are done. Otherwise, steam it for another 10 minutes.
Remove the entire platter from the steamer, garnish the fish with the scallions, cilantro, sesame oil and serve immediately. Steamed fish should always be served just before eating. This is one dish you cannot prepare ahead of time. Serve with steaming rice.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Love and Fishes

I learned to cook in summer cooking schools. But I learned to live it, through my maternal grandmother, Paula Espiritu Lavina. She was born in a privileged family (they owned the first model T Ford in Marikina) of the de la Paz clan.

My great grandfather, however, died early before all his children had finished school. He was cleaning his car one day when it was hit from behind by a karitela. He was run over and died of gangrene.

Lola was the eldest daughter. Her older brother went on to become a lawyer, so lola studied and soon became a teacher. She spoke Spanish and played the violin. Her other sibilings finished school too, with her and her brother's help.

But her best achievements (for me) came after marriage to Lolo, Filimon Lavina. Lola's cooking was famous.

I will digress at this point to note that you may get horribly bored at the manner in which I am writing this. It sounds like any other pedestrian who likes to boast of his lineage because he has nothing else to commend him. These people have many stories of how great their ancestors were, how large their lands or holdings or -- this is what kills me -- the fact that they have foreign blood, the most common being Spanish or Chinese.

So as I started writing this, I noticed, with growing alarm that I have become one of those whom I have maligned under my breath. Those people who boast of relations to this or that hero, or of coming from a mestizo family. So I have taken great care to limit the narrations of how great my forebears are. As far as I can tell, I have no national heroes lurking in the family tree unless you count Lolo Imon and Papa's wartime exploits as guerillas. We do have the occasional criminal, failures, priests (I just had to throw that in) and dead ends. But I guess thats a story for another time.

My point is, it is one thing to establish pride for the past -- our country is glorious with it-- but it is also necessary to keep making successes too. It is also necessary to establish a credible past and one that is not fraught with colonialism. I'm not proud of the fact that my paternal greatgrandmother was probably sired by a priest, but there you have it. One cannot deny the green eyes. Its a fact. But being proud of light skin and a Caucasian ancestor as though it were superior is another thing altogether.

Ok, rant over.

Lola's cooking was well known among relatives. Her kitchen, a 1950s renovation had the best and latest technology, but she also had two wood burning stoves out in the back. The traditional brick and stone open oven and an American style iron one. She would buy the freshest ingredients from the market, opting to have chickens slaughtered in the backyard to guarantee freshness. Fish were checked for eye clarity, smell, plimpness and firmness. The backyard had fruit trees and herbs some of whose bounty went straight into the pot.

Lola's daughters all imbibed this love for cooking, with each of my aunts and my mother developing their own specialties, work schedules notwithstanding.

When I began cooking for real -- no cheating with store bought pre-cooked viands -- it was Lola who provided recipes and took me in hand for a step by step demonstration. And no matter how old I was or how infirm she had become, if I asked for her palitaw, she would find a way to make me some.

What follows is Lola's recipe for tulingan -- mackerel -- known as a Batangas specialty, but one which she perfected. Lola insisted on the real thing.

Clean the mackerel and remove innards. Press the fish flat using a butcher cleaver and salt them individually. Line clay pot with banana leaves. Make a small tray or stand using barbecue sticks woven together and place it on the floor of your clay pot. Line the pot with sun dried kamias.

Arrange fish in clay pot (you may want to wrap each individually) making sure each piece is sprinkled with peeled and pounded garlic, pork fat and pepper corns. cover with more kamias.

Add water enough to cover, top with banana leaves and cover with clay lid. Boil slowly with low heat until 80 oercent of the water evaporates. Add more water and allow to evaporate again.

Some serve tulingan by lightly frying first, to seal in the flavors. The remaining liquid may be used as a fish sauce.